Study Guide

The White Man's Burden Stanza 4

By Rudyard Kipling

Stanza 4

Lines 25-28

Take up the White Man's burden--
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper--
The tale of common things.

  • After another helping of the same old refrain, our speaker lets us know that these white men are not signing on for glory. Nope, it's not about a "tawdry" (cheap) display of authority. This is work, real work (or "toil," as it's put here).
  • In fact, the White Man is metaphorically compared to a medieval servant ("serf") or a domestic worker ("sweeper"). This is gritty and unglamorous work, he wants us all to know.

Lines 29-32

The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

  • And, hey, it gets even worse for our poor White Man. What's the reward for all that unglorified labor? Well, it's certainly not a chance to enjoy all the fruits of that hard work, if that's what you were thinking.
  • No, the White Man will not be able to stroll through the ports he helps to build or walk along ("tread") the roads he helps to pave. Form-wise, the poem really drives that home here with the use of anaphora in this stanza, repeating "The [blank] ye shall not [blank]" and "mark them with your [blank]." (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that.)
  • These aspects of European civilization will be a legacy, one that the White Man doesn't get to enjoy, but rather leaves behind.
  • At the same time, he will have made his "mark"—both in terms of the designs he brings (while "living") to the "uncivilized" land, as well as the bodies of the hard-working dead white guys who, in some way or another, have met their end by "helping" the locals.